Friday again, and again it’s a terrible movie we’re talking about. In 1960, producer-director Irwin Allen, having made very successful, spectacular documentaries, decided to cross over into thrillers, science fiction, and fantasy with two star-studded films. One was the circus thriller The Big Circus, and the other was a very loose adaptation of the Lost World. I would have skipped a lengthy plot recap if the film even remotely resembled the novelization, but this was not the case. After the recap I’ll go more into the devastating changes in the plot. Suffice to say, I can sum up what went wrong here pretty easily-
The film begins with credits shown over a lava field, as if the volcano is the star of the show. Plumes of flame announce the title, and the stars’ names are proudly displayed. The movie’s first scene is of Professor Edward Challenger disembarking into London and being confronted by members of the press. The fact that he arrives by passenger jet establishes that this story is being told in the 1960s, not 1913. The protagonist, Edward Malone, annoys Challenger and is punched down the staircase by the irate professor. While Challenger storms off, Malone meets a young woman, Jennifer, who is the daughter of Malone’s boss.
We cut to a scientific talk by Challenger, being challenged by his rival Summerlee as in the book. The rivalry is far more intense than in the book, and the Summerlee thoroughly heckles Challenger. Challenger calls for volunteers. Summerlee, Sir Roxton, and Malone, as in the book, all volunteer for the expedition. However, Jennifer is also present and also volunteers. “There’ll be no women on my expedition!” Challenger growls. Malone’s boss comes to the rescue, promising to fund Challenger if he accepts Malone. Roxton is established as a callous playboy and overall cad and as the romantic rival for Malone’s intentions on Jennifer.
Our next scene is Brazil, introducing two new Hispanic stereotypes; helicopter pilot and singer Gomez and the goofy comic relief host Costas. The love triangle is established as Jennifer arrives, forcing herself into the party with her little brother David. Jennifer shares scenes with Malone and Roxton, showing interest in both. Challenger is the butt of more jokes, especially involving Jennifer’s toy poodle Frosty.
A helicopter ride (there are no boats seen or even mentioned in the film) takes them to the plateau, with Challenger stepping out and proclaiming victory while Summerlee remains skeptical. That night, they are visited by a monitor lizard covered with rubber fins and frills, leading to a chase around the jungle (Jennifer is attacked by carnivorous vines and has to be rescued by Roxton and Malone. Jennifer scream count: 1) until the party returns to find their helicopter wrecked (Costas scream count: 1). Challenger identifies it as a “Brontosaurus”. Summerlee laughs, and so do any viewers who know what a Brontosaurus is
In the morning, Summerlee is nearly eaten by another plant, and the party finds three-toed tracks, following them to their dinosaur. Said dinosaur is an iguana with rubber horns (Jennifer scream count: 2). Frosty barks at it, and the dinosaur’s roar chases them off. Later, they find they are being spied on by a native Indian girl, whom Challenger has Malone run down and capture. Malone finds her only by rescuing her from a poorly-composited red-legged tarantula with a mirror ball lighting it. The professors view her as a scientific specimen, but David protects her and tries to befriend her. Roxton is not happy, knowing this will cause revenge from her tribes. The rivalry between Malone and Roxton grows, winding up in a fight that reveals a lost diary of a “Burton White”. This prompts Roxton to admit to being part of an earlier expedition and explain his guilt over losing the party. Turns out Gomez’s brother Santiago was also on the expedition, and his hatred of Roxton grows. The earlier expedition was not looking for dinosaurs, but for El Dorado and a diamond lode.
That night, Costas attempts to rape the indian, but she is saved by David. Soon after, Gomez lures Roxton off, feigns injury, and tries to shoot him-he misses, grazing Summerlee instead. The indian girl uses this distraction to escape, Jennifer and Malone pursuing, and in turn they are pursued by the “brontosaurus”. (Jennifer scream count: 3). They escape when another “dinosaur” (a baby alligator given rubber horns and a Dimetrodon sail) arrives. The dinosaurs fight, falling off a cliff, and Jennifer and Malone return to camp only to be captured along with the rest of the group by the natives (Jennifer scream count: 4).
The indians, lacking only bones through their noses, take them to their underground cavern (Challenger proclaims “Obviously cannibals”. Costas scream count: 2). There they wait for sacrifice while their chief performs, from the sheer length and monotony of it, a percussion interpretation of a Latin Mass. Challenger sets up the main setpiece of the film-“ “Plateau is in danger of blowing up”. With that, every geologist in the audience just tried to slit their wrists with their remote control. The Indian girl returns to save David, and they escape to where the girl’s only other white friend lives. This is the decrepit Burton White, inexplicably blind. White explains what went wrong, how the natives will sacrifice them (Costas scream count: 3), that Santiago is dead, that there are indeed diamonds, and that escape can only mean fleeing through the molten heart of the volcano (of course). The natives finally find out that the prisoners have escaped, and the chase is on. Gomez tries to shoot Roxton again, but Costas wants to find the diamonds first.
The party walks slowly through a fog-and-ribs set they name “The Graveyard of the Damned” and then inch along the sheep cliff overlooking a magma river. Challenger nearly falls (Jennifer scream count: 5) but they escape, Gomez burning their path behind them and defeating the tribesmen. They finally see the escape in a huge chamber, complete with steaming lake and dammed (?!) lake (?!) of lava (?!), called appropriately enough “The Lake of Fire”. Costas finds diamonds (already polished and cut), Challenger finds a dinosaur egg (dinosaur laid eggs in volcanoes, don’t you know), and Gomez finds a chance for revenge. He gives his big revenge speech to Roxton, but Malone disarms him with a bag of diamonds.
Gomez’s gun awakens a horned finned monitor lizard, which rises out of the lake and eats Costas (Costas scream: 4, Jennifer scream: 6), but Roxton pulls Gomez to safety. To get past the lizard, Malone has to break the rock dam with a log (?!). Gomez sacrifices his life (“A life for a life”) by jumping onto the log, the dam breaks, the lava is released, the lizard dies, and there is an inexplicable but inevitable earthquake and volcanic eruption. Our heroes escape, and the Lost world is destroyed (?!) by the eruption. Challenger reveals that he has taken his egg with him and Roxton revealing he took diamonds with them. Roxton gives the diamonds to Malone and Jennifer as an anniversary present and the egg hatches to reveal a Tokay gecko with rubber horns. “Tyrannosaurus rex!” announces Challenger with glee, and he says he will take it back to London.
What can I say? This film is terrible. I wouldn’t call it worse than King Dinosaur-this film has actual actors and sets and budgets. The cast does a decent job with the shoddy script and poor direction, Claude Rains especially. The sets are beautiful-colorful, atmospheric and lush. The forest is dense and green and deep, and the caverns excellently lit and majestic. The feel of the film is very classical, invoking the same emotions and atmosphere as a Rudolph Zallinger painting.
It’s just the rest is terrible. While Irwin Allen would continue to put in big casts, they would be better developed than this one. Doyle works because it is simply 4 main characters. Changing it up to 9 makes things much more difficult. This Fellowship of the Plateau, as it were, is just poorly developed. The two scientists provide only exposition and comic relief, and very little else. Roxton is just an aristocratic cad. Malone is a smart-alec and nothing more, with no motivation or depth. Jennifer is just an objectified sexist stereotype, there to wear skin-tight pink pants, carry a toy poodle, and scream constantly. Gomez and Costas are broad stereotypes-the passionate, musical, fiery Latin lover and the greedy, lustful, slothful, cowardly idiot. The indian (never given a name) is just a plot device and her romance with David (along with David’s character) another plot device.
The original book is about new frontiers in science, and there’s a great deal of action. There’s even some sympathy towards native cultures and the common brotherhood of humanity. Here, the racism and sexism make this even less progressive than the novel. The women are just objects to be endangered, only acting as hapless plot devices at best. The Brazilians are Latino stereotypes, and the native peoples of the plateau are even worse. In the book, the Indians save our heroes, giving them food, shelter, and killing off both dinosaurs and marauding apemen. Here, they replace the apemen entirely.
The characters are pale shadows at best. Malone doesn’t do anything heroic and shows no motivation for joining or anything in the way of depth of character. Challenger, Doyle’s favorite character, was brilliant, cocky, courageous, snarky and a force of nature. Roxton was charismatic, wise-cracking, a fantastic athlete but passionate about South America and a former freedom fighter. In this film, they’re antagonists! Part of the reason is that there are simply too many characters, but J.R.R. Tolkien managed to juggle 9 characters with their own stories.
Another problem is the modern setting. Modern technology makes things much too easy. Use a radio. Fly in with a plane. There’s no real isolation, and that kills the very idea of a lost world in the first place. Science takes a backseat to wealth. In the book, the diamonds are an afterthought, an additional reward for our heroes’ time and effort. Here, they are the MacGuffin, the very goal of the quest. Once the dinosaurs are seen, that’s it. They’re not the stars-they’re just more things for our heroes to avoid.
Finally, there’s the special effects. Willis O’Brien’s name is in the credits, but it looks like Allen spent all his time on the actors rather than on the special effects. The dinosaurs are simply slurposaurs; monitor lizards and iguanas with rubber horns and fins. The dinosaurs have no majesty or drama-the effects money (and the script!) went to the volcanic eruption as the main piece. I suspect Allen saw the original film, and instead of focusing on the dinosaurian stars, preferred the arbitrary love triangle and volcano (neither of which is actually in the book). They seem more of an afterthought-when Valley of Gwangi is a better Lost World than you, you fail as an adaptation and as a movie. As both a sci-fi epic and an adaptation of the book, it falls short of the 1925 production. It's best to summarize this movie with this image:
To be fair to Allen, this was his debut, and much better special effects would be seen in his later films. You can foresee his trademarks of large casts and natural disasters. I would blame this movie not on Allen, but on a movie released very shortly before this one. You see, another pseudoadapation of 19th century science fiction gave this movie many precedents. Henry Levin’s adaptation of Jules Vernes’ first palaeoepic Journey to the Center of the Earth also featured lizards, a screaming woman, caverns, volcanoes, a cute tagalong animal, and a human antagonist. I strongly suspect that Allen either saw the film or was aware of its production, since the two films are very similar in their feel and tone. Simple comparing the theatrical trailers makes a clear connection.
I have seen much worse-King Dinosaur comes to mind, but this is a truly bad film. I would recommend watching it for curiosity’s sake or if you want to make a Mystery Science Theater episode of your own, but really the best way to watch it is to put in on as background noise for a party and try not to think about the unpleasant implications for women, minorities, and innocent reptiles. I would put it as a 30/100, mostly for Claude Rains, the sets, and matte paintings.
Again, apologies for the lengthy recap, but sometimes you just need to vent. Next week, I’ll be doing some book reviews and a documentary, but first up, another featured species!